Written by Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin
Published in The Star Online on 11th of October 2019
There are lessons to be learnt from UK’s brexit where society polarises over a single political issue
SOME days in the United Kingdom prior to visiting the easternmost and westernmost countries of the European Union have stimulated an update on Brexit.
As a student in England in the late nineties, I remember the UK’s membership of the EU being hotly debated.
A decade earlier, the political satire Yes, Prime Minister produced hilarious dialogues to supposedly explain the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC).
Throughout my years at university and working in London, the issue gathered more prominence, and the success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) added pressure to all political parties to declare a stance.
A promise for a referendum entered the 2015 election manifesto of the Conservative Party led by then Prime Minister David Cameron, who headed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
With the Conservatives winning outright in that election, Parliament passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015 (supported by MPs from most parties) which gave effect to the manifesto promise.
The referendum took place on June 23,2016, and the electorate voted by 51.9% to 48.1% to leave.
It’s important to remember that these voters had different motivations.
Many wanted to leave because they thought EU membership encouraged immigration with all the usual arguments (a burden on resources, increasing crime and stealing local jobs); others because of the perception that laws were emerging from Europe without any British input; and some others wanted to leave for supposed economic reasons.
Indeed, contrary to the assumption that leave voters were all xenophobic, there were Brexiteers who claimed the UK could be more open with the rest of the world and more respectful of democracy and human rights by being free from what they saw as the anti-democratic EU.
In any case, the people’s verdict was delivered and Cameron, who campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, resigned.
He was replaced by Theresa May who initiated the process of leaving the EU, with Parliament passing (with support from most parties) the Act that enabled formal notification and beginning the negotiations of the terms of separation.
She then called another general election with the hope of strengthening her hand, but her party instead lost seats.
Then furious parliamentary activity followed, with rebel Conservative MPs joining the Opposition to ensure that Parliament would be able to vote on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal.
Alongside this, May presented her draft agreement with the EU
Although this text was agreed to by leaders of the other 27 member states, the UK House of Commons (whose approval is required for ratification) rejected it three times.
May then resigned.
Her replacement, as a result of a Conservative Party leadership election, was Boris Johnson.
When I was a student I enjoyed his writing and speeches, and I thought his mayoralty of London (which encompassed the London Olympics of which he became a prominent mascot) was better than his predecessor’s.
However, many thought his decision to campaign for Brexit was done purely for reasons of political gain, rather than a genuine belief in the cause.
This accompanied accusations that many of the assertions he made during the campaign were false.
With this sentiment facing Johnson’s insistence (also with popular backing) on leaving the EU on Oct 31 with or without a deal, British society has certainly become more polarised.
This was catalysed further by the Prime Minister’s attempt to prorogue Parliament in a way that the Supreme Court determined was unlawful, accusations of improper conduct and nepotism, and a belief that efforts towards a deal were half-hearted at best (particularly on the tricky issue of the Northern Ireland backstop).
As seen in many other countries, bifurcation is occurring in which every individual feels pressure to choose one side or another, with nuance (on this and other policy issues) becoming subsumed by one’s view on a single topic.
My British mates tell me that offices, groups of friends and even families have become bitterly divided on the issue.
In that sense, everyone wants the saga to be over but no one can sufficiently agree on how to achieve this… so the polarisation continues.
With only weeks to go before the presentation and approval of a renegotiated deal (if at all), it seems the UK is heading into an ever-heightening political storm.
There are far too many variables to guess what outcome is best for Malaysia.
But discussions with Malaysians and Brits across age groups and professional sectors suggest that the bilateral relationship will be safe, regardless of what happens.
The lesson for us then is to be careful with our own experiments with regionalism and referendums, and a polarising society due to a single political issue.